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U.S. Olympic hopefuls need scoring touch
by Ridge Mahoney, March 20th, 2008 6:45AM

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The U.S. U-23s have scored just three goals - two from the penalty spot - in their first three games of Olympic qualifying, but they won their group and face Canada on Thursday for a ticket to China next summer. Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney explains how the USA, which failed to qualify four years ago, can succeed.

Canada isn't Mexico, and probably never the twain shall meet, yet overconfidence in the American camp won't be brimming prior to their Thursday showdown to determine who goes to Beijing this summer.

Payback for Mexico eliminating the USA from the Olympics four years ago with a 4-0 thrashing in Guadalajara will have to wait. Canada pipped Mexico for second place in Group B as the goals flew in on the final day of play, the Canadians squeezing into the semifinals Sunday with a plus-four goal difference by virtue of a 5-0 thrashing of Guatemala, which had already clinched the group title, and Mexico falling a goal short at plus-three after belting Haiti, 5-1.

"They're a very athletic team," says U.S. coach Peter Nowak. "They wait for their chances to score and they defend pretty well. They have a couple of good goalscorers up top."

Against Guatemala, former Chicago Fire forward Will Johnson and Tosaint Ricketts each scored twice and Kyle Hall scored what proved to be the vital fifth goal in the final minute.

Johnson, who played youth ball with Sockers FC Chicago with U.S. national team midfielder Michael Bradley, also scored against Mexico and leads the tournament with three goals.

Among those tied for second with two is Freddy Adu. He and Jozy Altidore sat out the final U.S. group game against Honduras and haven't played since last Thursday.

Knowing it needed goals to have any chance of reaching the semifinals, Canada didn't break through against Guatemala until Johnson scored in the last minute of the first half, but when he netted again in the first minute of the second half Canada kept attacking. Rickets scored in the 57th and 80th minutes and Hall got his goal in stoppage time.

Whether it's questionable tactics, cautious coaching, or a cases of bad luck and flaccid finishing betraying good approach play, the Americans sputtered in group play by squandering a lead and tying Cuba, 1-1, then beating Panama and Honduras by 1-0 scores courtesy of penalty kicks.

Three goals, two from the spot, isn't much to show for a combined 39-20 advantage in shots.

Charlie Davies drew two penalties against Honduras and missed the first before Eddie Gaven overruled him to knock home the second in stoppage time.

Adu, who sat out the Honduras game, is the regular penalty taker and converted against Panama. All this may become terribly important if the game goes to penalties, as occurred in the 2002 Gold Cup semifinal between the countries. (The U.S. won that shootout, 4-2, with Kasey Keller in the nets.)

Nowak used all of his 19 available players in the three group games and No. 20, Jonathan Spector, arrived from England Sunday after playing for West Ham against Blackburn the day before. He's trained the past few days and presumably will force Nowak to change his back line once again to give him a starting spot.

Since Spector and Houston defender Pat Ianni are both strong, rugged types, Nowak may elect to pair Spector in the middle with the quick and slick Michael Orozco.

Yet Spector can also play outside back, which hasn't been a strong suit of the USA in this competition. If there's been a weak spot in the U.S. lineup, it is at outside back, where the positioning and decision-making haven't been up to par.

Nowak also has decisions to make as to how to support Altidore. In the first game, Adu ran wild in midfield yet wingers Robbie Findley and Davies weren't often in sync with Altidore.

Against Panama, Edu and Gaven played tucked behind Altidore; some slick play by midfielder Stuart Holden and Gaven didn't produce that many chances, and Edu played well yet wasn't as dominating as he was against Cuba.

Holden turned in another impressive showing against Honduras; a rather tepid showing by Sal Zizzo resulted his departure in the 60th minute and the insertion of catalysts Dax McCarty and Davies.

With Adu and Altidore rested, and Holden sharp and dangerous, there should be enough quality chances for goals to be scored. Yet Canadian keeper Josh Wagenaar is no easy mark, and the Canadians will probably revert to the smothering, counterattacking tactics they used to frustrate Mexico.

"We haven't always dealt with teams packing it in and getting players behind the ball against us as well as maybe we should have," says McCarty, who most of the time has been sharp and busy as the midfield anchor. "It shows that teams respect us but still we have to find ways to score. We just need to be patient and play our game. With the skillful players we have the chances will come, and we can't afford to waste them."

 



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